Who is on the plum tree?
In this week’s, In The Sandbox, Ampat Koshy discusses a subject very close to my own heart ~ whether or not poetry is particularly national or not. I would like to add a slightly different note to the one made so well by Dr. Koshy, but one which adds another dimension to the discussion. Poet Laureate, Seamus Heaney, is a family friend, and I was lucky enough to attend a conference chaired by him on whether English is the language of colonialism.
We heard from poets and dissident writers from all over the world, some of whom had been imprisoned for speaking out against colonialistic or treacherous regimes. At the end of this wonderful event, Seamus Heaney summed up by saying he didn’t think English was a language of colonialism ~ oppression was not why, for example, the Irish learned to speak it so well and so uniquely. Soup kitchens and such-like might, in the beginning, have been a reason that people turned from speaking Gaelic to English, but not in the long-run. English is a language in which you can dream, a language of beauty through which any people might express their national soul.
I interpreted what Heaney was saying as follows: the breadth of English, the sound of its music is flexible enough to speak the soul of the rocks and mountains, the rain and sky, embracing the thoughts and feelings of any people’s bloodied landscape or troubled heart. The language itself is both national and universal.
It is the task of the poet to speak of themes that touch us universally. His or her unique way of expressing such themes will be fed by a national, blood-line history and religion, as well as the innate, inborn mythology and imagery hidden in the racial soul.
Thank you Dr. Koshy for bringing us this week’s subject.
By Dr. Ampat Koshy
For me, coming from Kerala, learning in the 70s and 80s, Irish poetry, Irish literature and Ireland held a strange fascination, primarily due to figures like Yeats, O’Casey, Synge, Joyce, Beckett, and later Heaney. The fascination had something to do with the mayhap, illusory feeling that Ireland might have been a bit like Kerala at some imaginary point in time. I imagined that the landscapes were similar and felt keenly the uneasiness of Ireland’s relationship with England.
When I started reading Irish poetry, I began with the early Yeats of the ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’, the romantic Yeats who had made Pound laugh for being outdated, and went on to the later mature Yeats who wrote poems like the unforgettable ‘Easter 1916’. I then read Joyce’s “Pomes Penyeach” and “Chamber Music” and found them memorably forgettable at a younger age. I was impatient and turned to doing research on Beckett’s poems (a not- much- worked- on area) and finally ceased my inquiry into Irish poetry after reading some Heaney. I also looked briefly at the works of some poets that Beckett had mentioned disparagingly in some of his critical articles like Denis Devlin. Recently Irish poetry and writing has come back into my life through meeting writers like the metaphysical poetess Niamh Clune, and the exciting “new voice,” Alan Patrick Traynor.
Thinking on all these poets and their poems now, in a limited fashion I try to grasp hold of some kind of commonality or difference to unite all of them in my mind that does not seem to exist, except for the concept of Irishness. But what exactly constitutes Irishness or for that matter Indianness, this concept of nationality or nation or nationalisms; that too in poetry? How or why does one say of a poet that he or she is typically Indian while another is not? Yeats is typically Irish, it is said, for instance, as Tagore is Indian, while Beckett is ‘not’ Irish and I, – in a very much lesser vein, of course, as of now – am not Indian.
The pejorative note in the latter accusation is not justified. But the more interesting question is the other one, of whether there can be a national poetry and if so what would it have to consist of to make it that? Does poetry belong to any nation except its own? If the answer is no, is the difference merely of content or of something more, including all the other erstwhile elements of poetry?
My contention is that one does not have to try to be national in one’s writing, that either nation is as artificial a creation as religion, or however much one tries to write in a manner free of the concept of nation, one cannot. It comes through anyway and need not be forced.
my way is in the sand flowing
between the shingle and the dune
the summer rain rains on my life
on me my life harrying fleeing
to its beginning to its end
my peace is there in the receding mist
when I may cease from treading these long shifting thresholds
and live the space of a door
that opens and shuts
This beautiful poem is by Samuel Beckett, and while I, a reader originally from Kerala, can identify with it easily as Kerala and India also have sand, shingles, dunes, summer rain, mist and doors, one is also reminded that these are intrinsic to the Irish and perhaps French landscapes too. Finally what unites us here in our appreciation of the poem which is a comment on life, that each individual’s life is confusing and tiring, and the poet’s desire is that it be made simple, is the imagery of the poetry and the humanness in the poem’s and the poet’s words. It can be considered both as particular to a nation’s poetic voice and at the same time belonging to the nation of poetry and the universality of mankind, thus achieving a rare, fragile and fine balance between these two often contradictory, but inescapable pulls.